on solitude and wanting


There is nothing worse than to be alone; there is nothing better.

In the United States, women are socialized to speak, to pour out their happinesses and sadnesses and anger to a willing ear. Lacking that, untold things fold inward, blooms recurling into buds. When I have got something to say and no one to tell it to, I’m all I’ve got, and I ought to be a sufficient fan and critic.

The trouble and boon of solitude is that, instead of speaking and speaking, we can only drive deep inside. There’s a certain loneliness and pleasure in this, so that, like Rilke, “I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough / to make every minute holy.”

Sometimes as a teenager, I had premonitions of missing something that I didn’t have in my life yet to miss, but I enjoyed the feel of missing, of wanting some shadow person or thing. There is a contradiction in me, and probably in all people: we are too alone and not alone enough. We have one thing and want another. We acclimate quickly to what we have, seek out more. In all of this, American media tells us that we must want and want and want: a newer phone; the shiniest hair; a soulmate to make us complete. Of course, desire is a biological imperative for our growth, and so there can be pleasure in wanting.

But loneliness undermines holiness. It is antithetical, so that when I am lonely–when I want for things or people I don’t or cannot have–I am basically unappreciative of what is now, what is concrete and before me.

And to seek fulfillment from others is a hard ask. In this country, individualism most often translates into greater spans of aloneness. I live alone. I go from place to place with small bursts of company. After thirty years, life tells me this: solitude is the default, and company the anomaly, the island.

If I will be alone, then I must be alone.

It is hard; I can’t deny the periodic antipathy. But, far more importantly: it’s only when I’ve been alone that I’ve tapped into anything remotely holy. If I can claim any impulse of profundity, it exists only between two ends of a desk during spots of solitude.

In Excess of Being, Lera Auerbach claims that, “in writing, I am my better version.”

To this, I add: in writing, I am alone.


photo credit: Walking it alone by Lance Shields (license)

memory, not fidelity

“I’m just going to watch you,” he said. He was smiling, sunburnt, a lanyard around his neck. Realizing the strangeness of what he’d said, he added: “I’ve always wanted to draw,” pointing to my sketchpad, the pen in my hand.

We were in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Above us, Rubenesque women and attendant cupids, the embossed wisdom—”words are also actions and actions are a kind of words”—of Emerson, Bacon, Milton, Carlyle.

The man beside me was a middle school teacher, he said, from New Mexico. Around us, a hundred almost-teens, some with phones held aloft. They joshed, laughed, looked at each other as much as anything.

I couldn’t blame them.

I remember that age with a kind of cataracted eye, a haziness. “Take pictures,” my parents had instructed on field trips, pressing a disposable camera into my hands. I did, but none of them lasted—not the ones of walls, or ceilings, or women and their cupids, at least.

And why should they? We’re not photographers, most of us. But we do our crude best to capture people, and those are the images we most often keep. The rest are poor stand-ins for the memories we’d like to commemorate.

But the camera isn’t enough.

My instructions were to spend an hour drawing an archway, the curve and flat of the pillars, the stairwell and cupola above. After a time, one of the women in my drawing class deposited her book and pencils on the ledge next to me. “Watch my stuff?” she asked, and then went in search of a bathroom.

I took a break from my drawing, leaning back on the ledge. I watched. This was a place I’d normally bring my camera to bear on, as though the act of taking a picture exempted me from having to look closely.

And that’s the problem: at some point, the camera began to function as my third eye, and I’d come away with a half-cocked impressions of places, the ghosts of buildings, monuments.

These places deserve an exactitude in our memories from which we have grown slowly apart. We glance, we say, “how pretty,” and then our phones flash white.

In a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo observe that, “when the youth of a community become educated, committed and effective, they can become productive and politically engaged changemakers.”

What does it mean for a young person to be committed, to be effective? How can a field trip—a temporary displacement from New Mexico to Washington, D.C.—properly educate?

To start, it is not enough to bring teenagers to the Library of Congress. It is not nearly enough to give them smartphones to document it. There are 350 billion unique images on the Internet, and several thousand of the same ceiling and windows and archways. And how very impressionable we are when so young. What a shame to place cameras between us and these things.

At the very least, we ought to sit, to consider.

Briefly, I imagined what might happen if the teacher from New Mexico put pens in his students’ hands and said: write this place, draw it. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you understand.

photo credit: Library of Congress – 3 ex. HDR (handheld) by m01229 (license)

What it means to say only yes

“What exactly do we remember? Which version of our lives?” – Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being

My improv friends have taught me a rule, the first and most essential to any improvisation:

Yes, and…

Yes, the plane is crashing, and we must save it; yes, this toboggan will win the race, and we have to buff it; yes, you’re a klutz, and let me sweep up that glass you broke.

It’s about expansion, about raising the finger of possibility into the air. In improv, those possibilities swell outward like a balloon; in just a few lines, the world is borne: two, three people, the place they stand, their relationships with one another.

These friends play a game called ‘genres.’ They must improvise the same scene inside any genre the audience calls for: action, noir, bad horror, telenovela. Throughout, they must remain in scene, they must not laugh.

Above all, they must say yes.

In comedy, invoking “no” is a kind of death knell for the scene, a betrayal. It is one person falling backward only to find that the other has retracted his arms.

This is in direct contrast to drama. In my MFA program, we practiced exercises in refusal. “Write a scene,” a professor told us, “in which two characters tell each other ‘no’ in various ways.”

In fact, one could argue that good drama is about characters saying “no” to one another all the time.

This is because the first, critical tenet of fiction is conflict. It must be in the eyes, the flick of the hands, the speech. It’s the hot core from which stakes are raised, around which any good story must revolve. And we novice writers are taught to pick it out wherever we can: from our perches on benches, through thin walls.

Last year I wrote about shyness and writing. I argued that shyness is a symptom of sensitivity, the capacity to feel, and that we writers ought to embrace shyness, to “be uncomfortable” and let conflict get inside us.

Now I wonder. To live by conflict is to live a certain version of life: one that expects to hear ‘no.’ Indeed, that version of a life seeks out–clings to–all the ways in which we and others are refused.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes that “fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.”

So what if I choose, above all, to remember a different story? What if I choose to say yes? Cheryl Strayed changed her story; today, Tiny Beautiful Things stands as a better book of advice than any I’d ever expected to read in my life.

In it, Strayed tells us not to “surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”

Okay, Cheryl. Let’s try it differently.

photo credit: balloon-03-look-inside-a-balloon by Wansan Son (license)

Why the smartest people make the most mistakes

When I was five, I sat on the white stripe that demarcated the soccer goal—or nearabout—and picked flowers.

My father was competitive, bothered. He yelled at me from the sidelines. Meanwhile, a trailing pack of children kicked the ball in large figure eights around the field.

It was my first and last soccer game.

I began and finished many things during my childhood this way, with a sort of non-acknowledging obstinacy. Maybe the flowers were more interesting; maybe I recognized that I would not be able to kick the ball, or did not want to, and so at five years old, I had the inarticulate feeling that it just wasn’t for me.

This was what led me to figure skating, to reading and writing…all things I felt were for me because my initial forays were met with some success.

And I understand now that my childhood epitomizes the American attitude toward mistakes.

The Confidence Code, a book about women and self-confidence, focuses briefly on this attitude as compared to that held by Asian cultures. Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, points out:

“In America…we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. People who are smart don’t struggle; they just naturally get it. In Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Stigler realized this after sitting in on a math class in Japan, where one child repeatedly attempted to draw a circle on the board. No, the other children said, it was not perfect. In the U.S., this child might have grown frustrated, might have cried. Instead, he kept repeating the process until a perfect circle emerged from the chalk in his hand. He was proud when he returned to his desk, and the others clapped.

In fairness, the American ethos is all about the struggle when it comes to sports, efforts of the body (I was just uniquely proficient at rejecting all forms of struggle as a child). But Stigler is right about the way we’ve aligned smarts with ease.

Look at any LinkedIn profile (my own included), and you’ll see a professional life swept clean of failure, a stack of work accomplishments and volunteering and awards that indicate nothing about the many disregarded job applications, lousy interviews, and instances of firing-downsizing-letting go that may or may not have occurred. On Facebook, we face similar pressure to highlight how very well our lives are progressing, to secret away our unhappiness, our lack of success, our struggle.

In her meditative memoir Excess of Being, composer and pianist Lera Auerbach describes mistakes as “cracks in the walls of your prison.”

Americans admire narratives of perseverance, of struggle. We are inspired by J.K. Rowling’s many attempts to publish Harry Potter; by Henry Ford’s five failed businesses before Ford Motor Company; by Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard, failing spectacularly with the non-functional Traf-o-Data, leading to his founding of Microsoft.

Still we are afraid to make mistakes, to fail. And I’ve come to understand that the smartest among us have figured out what American society doesn’t teach: that struggle frees us, allows us to pursue the things that we are not good at, opens us to opportunity.

But first we have to draw imperfect circles.

photo credit: Wood Circles by THOR (license)

What happens when our relationships drive our art

Seagull Tornado Fractal

I’d never met him before, and he’d made me cry. What was it like to be Kazuo Ishiguro, I wondered, and to know that, at any moment, you could encounter a stranger whom you’d made cry?

I guess, as with anything: strange at first, and then gradually less strange.

He was reading at a synagogue in D.C., and I sat in one of the pews with my fingers on the embossed cover of his new book. I’d already read two others, his most famous: Never Let Me Go, and then The Remains of the Day. That had been years ago, and his words still hung with me, surfacing at random—unconscious philosophies by which I lived.

From The Remains of the Day, this line (in paraphrase): all our interactions are motivated by the fear of rejection, and by the desire for acceptance.

How devastating…how true.

Kazuo Ishiguro only read three pages from his book. Mostly he was asked questions about his writing, his process, his characters. How do you create characters, Mr. Ishiguro?

“I don’t create characters,” he said, “What I do is much simpler: I create bridges—I create relationships.” When the relationships are interesting, he explained, the characters evolve organically around them.

He used the word bridges, but I could only see a distortion of the air in my mind, like a tiny wind vortex connecting two people, shifting and palpating with their connection.

That little vortex is the centerpiece of his creativity.

In the many years I’d taken writing courses, studied craft books, talked to writers, this was something I’d never heard. But it seemed as true as anything, and so obvious. It resonated with an assertion from another book I’d read, David Castro’s Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul:

“At the heart of every human aspiration to create is a relationship.”

Relationships with others, with ourselves, with some imagined audience: they motivate the impulse to create as well as the process. And it holds true. On reflection, the work I’ve done that I value most was pushed along by people who made me very happy, and frustrated me, and dashed my hopes, and made me laugh—cry—and laugh-cry. Sometimes all those things belonged to one person, to one relationship.

And then Ishiguro was asked a question at once too simple and too big: “What motivates you as a writer?” A sympathetic titter rose from the audience. None of us would like to be asked that, or know how to answer it.

But he took it bravely. “To share those relationships with others,” he said. That was it.

And then I realized that, for all the ways he’s a conscious genius, Ishiguro also perhaps accomplishes what we all seek to do, but on a much larger scale: distorting the air between he and us (in our pews, in our homes, on our buses). Building a world of unconscious philosophies.

So what happens when relationships drive our art?

We are more authentic. We are more complex. Sometimes, we make people we’ve never met cry because our relationships and their relationships are fundamentally the same: whorls of air, rejection and acceptance.

photo credit: Seagull Tornado Fractual by Devin Moore (license)

What no one tells you about writing…about yourself

It was my second year of an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I was enrolled in a creative nonfiction course. “Think of the ‘I’ of now,” we were told, “and the ‘I’ of then.”

Most people likely haven’t heard of this concept. I had not either. In short: the ‘I’ (or eye) of now—your present perspective, full of wisdom and understanding—should infiltrate your essay, should cast new light on the experiences that the ‘I’ of then could not fully comprehend.

That’s what makes the essay deep. We never used that word, but its requirement was unstated, a sort of prerequisite to being a great essayist.

Oh, how I wanted to write great nonfiction. The desire was so strong, I spent many long hours stop-starting on idea after idea (not the story of the three-legged dog, not the tale of the bamboo forest, etc). I was thrilled and dismayed by so many ideas in such short order that I accumulated a long list of two-sentence Word documents, each of them titled grand, hopeful things.

Finally, after much pain—and the night before my deadline—there emerged a wrought, profound twelve pages.

In the next week’s workshop of my essay, my cohort agreed on the question: “where are you in this piece?”

The ‘I’ of then was quietly offended. I was everywhere—everywhere—didn’t they see! I was in my mother and my grandfather and the many stories I had been told, all the memories passed between them and me.

But my class was right: the ‘I’ of then was kind of a terrible essayist. She had never been trained to write about herself—not directly. It all felt too close, too egoistic. It’s the first thing that no one tells you about writing about yourselfthat you must embrace your ego, put aside your humility, your disinclination to say I—I—I over and over. You must sit with yourself for hours and hours, thinking only of you: the funny, and the very best, and the very worst, and the bits of you that you have tried—but, of course, are least likely—to forget. And you must tug all these parts of yourself wide like netting, inspecting the gaps and holes until you believe you have some new understanding, something to say.

You must confront the small part of you that believes you haven’t got a story to tell.

Last week I picked up a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, a series of essays by teenagers, students at a charter school in Reading, Pennsylvania.

And did they ever have stories to tell.

This passage from student Jean Mouscardy, in particular, made me feel strange and emotional on the metro:

I remember a day when I saw my father. I was 7 years old. (He left when I was only 4.) He saw me after 3 years, and slid his hand on top of my head, then told me, ‘Hey, my boy’s grown a lot. I’m glad to see you.’ He talked to my mother a few minutes then left. I watched him go and I think when I talked to him I smelled something. I had no idea, but it sure wasn’t perfume. Now I know it was alcohol.

Sometimes the eye of now can be a cruel, enlightening bastard.

This is the second thing that no one tells you when writing about yourself: that turning these memories like snow globes will almost inevitably give us new, occasionally damning insight, that we can never unsee what the ‘I’ of now has managed in retrospect to witness.

According to Manuel Guzman, a learning facilitator at the charter school: “the evolving content of one’s personal essay serves as the gateway to all relationships of importance: personal, spiritual, economic, and political.”

This is true. In my nonfiction course, after many machinations at my desk, I wrote a second essay about-not-about myself. I sneakily used the second person: “you felt neglected,” and “you pulled the dog’s tail.” This felt right to me, because—I see now—I could not take ownership of how many times I had hit my mother’s hound dog over the head. I did it because I was jealous of how much she loved him. I could not acknowledge the memory of (what sounded to a seven year-old as) his brain rattling in his skull. I couldn’t, as myself, detail the dog crossing the road, describe how he was struck by a car and the way his body arced through the air in front of me.

It was only after reading what I had written that I realized the guilt in me had grown over the years like a swallowed seed. I had to hazard my way through those memories to understand that some part of myself held jealousy, held cruelty.

Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

It could be argued that I knew those things before. Yes, perhaps I did. But not in such words, not consciously. To process a feeling, we must articulate it.

So I forgave myself for the dog’s death. The ‘I’ of then—where I still lived, before the essay—became fused to a new self-perception. I could be unkind, but I would not let myself forget it.

In this way, the personal essay is more than gateway. It’s inception, an attempt to make un-nebulous our feelings, to point to tangible words and phrases as the concrete basis for our interactions with the world. We don’t know what we think until we’ve written it.

Writing is meditation, depth of thought. Every sentence, as we create it, is creating us—our relationships with the personal, the spiritual, the economic, and the political.

What no one tells you about writing about yourself is that most of your attempts won’t be great, or deep, and that isn’t the goal, nor is it the reward.

The reward is this: somewhere in two-dozen abandoned essays, I’ve realized that I’m no longer afraid to use that ‘I.’

But I didn’t know I felt that way until I wrote it.


photo credit: I was so scared. I just wanna run and It’s wonderfuL “The comeback” via photopin (license)

Why bliss is different (and arguably more important) in adulthood

I’m a little embarrassed that a muffin and coffee can bring me bliss. I’m passionate about food, but is my life that small? Shouldn’t I have something better?

On the other hand: why not a muffin and coffee? Why should I need a better reason to feel bliss? And while that’s the word I’ve chosen, here’s the feeling more accurately:

Daily I ride a train in and out of D.C. When it starts into Union Station’s underbelly, all the windows go black. Yesterday I rode through the tunnel with the rare treat of a pumpkin muffin on my lap and vanilla hazelnut coffee in the seat holder. And I ate the two–bite and sip, bite and sip–with singular awareness, the tunnel pressing everything to texture, smell, taste.

For those minutes, nothing could make me more content.

And I realize now that what I call bliss is really mindfulness–that lack of thought for the past or the future. And damn, does adulthood make mindfulness a lot harder than as a kid.

Your Popsicle’s Melting by Auntie K, on Flickr

Image source

Fortune gave me only two real responsibilities as a child:

  1. Not to injure/maim/kill myself.
  2. To experience the world; to grow.

Both required mindfulness. So I felt no embarrassment about the euphoric happiness brought on by a cream-filled popsicle. Summers, nothing lay before or behind me except to sit in the hay loft of the horses’ barn and watch the straw float down. These things were allowed to have real importance, to be meaningful.

The moments when I had to think about the past or future beyond a few minutes’ or hours’ span (like, if I step in this gopher hole in the yard, I will likely twist my ankle and/or be attacked) were anomalies. Sometimes we were asked in school what we wanted to be; I made some quick determination–horse trainer; writer–and got back to being five or six or seven years old.

Today I’ve grown into different responsibilities; my memories spool out like film, and all the things I must do with myself–today, tomorrow, next week, next month and year–sit at the fore. And life has ironed out many of the “firsts,” the novel experiences. Mindfulness was easier when everything was new.

Those moments when I recapture bliss often come as surprises: switching between two guitar chords; the frisson of a powerful scene in a novel; hearing the chorus of that song; eating a muffin while drinking coffee on a train.

And as I near thirty, I can recognize that it’s different now: I’m more often blissful about things I’ve experienced many times.

Maybe this is how lovers of many years feel when they are very happy with each other. They may have loved months ago, and they may love months ahead, but all of that is not nearly as contenting–as engulfing–as loving now.